Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Common Ground and Cavatelli

Look at all those cigarettes!I grew up in a very Italian household in New York, and my ethnic identity has more stereotypes than you can bite your thumb at. My family is loud, big and outspoken (with cigarettes dangling from bejeweled fingers). I have cousins and second cousins and third cousins, twice removed. My First Holy Communion was a major family event, and Sunday dinner recipes are passed down from generation to generation. My grandpa tells stories about growing up in The City, and to this day, my grandma is steadfast in claiming that her uncle was just a barber.

A few days ago, I was chatting with a coworker whose father is another New York Italian, and I was pleasantly surprised by just how many things we had in common. Although he had never lived on Long Island or Jersey, he had visited and heard stories from his family. Like my grandmother, his own has a family recipe for red gravy and meatballs, and he knows that pasta is called macaroni, even when it's cavatelli or rotini. We have uncles named Frankie, cousins called John-John and at least one aunt named Maria. A few barflies overheard us and joined in--it was a fun conversation, and it made me realize how much I love (and miss) New York and my extended, extended family.

There is a sense of community among Italians--whether your name is Grande or Larocca or Tinelli, you belong to something bigger. Even generations later, you know your family came through Ellis Island, and that means something.

I think this sense of community speaks for something about human nature, too. We all want to belong, and so we search for connections. In real life, we make small talk and are pleasantly surprised to find neighbors from long ago. Online, we search for keywords and join Facebook groups like, "You know you're from Long Island, if..." We forward e-mails to our cousins, laughing at the 42 things in the life of an Italian child. People are proud of their heritage, and they are happy to find people like them.

Venn diagramIn PR, finding that common ground can be the key to a successful campaign. A message is meaningless if there is no medium to transmit it, and like your computer's processor turns 0s and 1s into something you can see and hear, community and common ground turns messages into something you can relate to.

Another way to look at it is through a Venn diagram, which is how it was explained to my classmates and I by Professor Quigley at BU. When you create a message, it is easy to see it through your own eyes, or the eyes of people like you. What's tough is taking a step back to see how the message might be appreciated by someone from a different background. For example, my friend Kim is not Italian, but she is from Long Island. While Kim might not have an uncle Frankie or cousin John-John, she does know what it's like to grow up on Long Island. Our common ground Venn diagram might look something like this:

The keywords where our circles intersect represent the ideas through which Kim and I can relate. Of course, it's a lot easier to find common ground between two people than it is three or four million, but it's certainly not impossible. In fact, campaigns like Pedigree's recent Dogs Rule advertisements or global projects like Post Secret build off the idea that we are all part of community, whether it is a community of pet owners or people with secrets to share.

What communities do you belong to? Has there been a great campaign recently that has built off that sense of belonging?

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